For the first time since they took back power in Washington, Democrats face a major test on a recurring, intractable issue.
Senators, assemble, stage left and stage right, and face the audience. Now, express your outrage and frustration. Demand change. Or, if you’re standing on the right, direct your outrage at those across from you, ridiculing them for suggesting that changing the laws might even address the problem.
This theatrical blocking is all too familiar by now, playing out with an uncanny consistency every time a mass shooting takes place in the United States. So it hardly felt like a real coincidence that on Monday, the night before the Senate Judiciary Committee was scheduled to hold a hearing to address “Constitutional and Common Sense Steps to Reduce Gun Violence,” another mass shooting occurred — this time in Boulder, Colo., where a gunman opened fire at a grocery store, killing 10 people.
Less than a week earlier, a gunman killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent, in shootings at three spas in the Atlanta area.
The Democratically controlled House earlier this month passed two relatively modest bills that would expand and strengthen background checks for gun sales, a move that more than four in five Americans support.
But in this theater, even the recitation of statistics showing public support for gun control can start to feel wearying — a reminder of the political roadblocks to passage as much as a token of the public will for change.
Those two bills appear to have little chance of passing the Senate, where they would need at least 10 Republican votes to neutralize the threat of a filibuster.
At the Judiciary Committee’s hearing today, Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, pointed to the fact that those bills passed with little Republican support in the House, holding up the G.O.P.’s own intransigence as evidence that the Democrats were trying to do too much.
In his remarks, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas — who has co-written a more conservative piece of gun-related legislation with Mr. Grassley — struck a similar note. He insisted that gun control wouldn’t do anything to stop gun violence, and his role onstage was that of both actor and theater critic.
“Every time there’s a shooting, we play this ridiculous theater where this committee gets together and proposes a bunch of laws that would do nothing to stop these murders,” Mr. Cruz said. “If you want to stop these murders, go after the murderers,” he added.
Democrats pushed back, saying that the shootings in Colorado and Georgia should force lawmakers to gather the political will needed to pass gun legislation, particularly as there has been an increase in violence across the board, including gun-related violence, in the past year.
“Thoughts and prayers cannot save the eight victims in Atlanta, or the 10 last night,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, which passed some of the country’s strictest state-level gun laws after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown in 2012.
Mr. Blumenthal echoed the youth activists who have taken a leading role on gun control when he emphasized that gun violence and racial justice were interrelated, pointing out that racial animus had often been the starting point for gun violence throughout American history.
“The hate-motivated shootings that tore through Atlanta last week are just the latest example; they won’t be the last,” he said. “Without access to a weapon, the Atlanta shooter is just a racist and a misogynist. But armed with a firearm, purchased that very day, he is a monster — a mass murderer.”
The Republican lawmakers’ arguments often had a cultural undertone, too. In his questioning, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas insisted that the rule of law, as presently written, should be enough to stop gun violence. And he turned his questioning into a wholesale attack on efforts to overhaul the criminal-justice system, tapping into the themes of former President Donald Trump’s unsuccessful re-election campaign last year.
“Our friends on the left always want to go straight to gun control as the solution for reducing this problem of violence,” he said.
“Notably, there has been extended, systematic attacks on our police and law enforcement professionals for years, calling them racist and bigoted and prejudiced. Demanding that they be defunded and replaced with social workers. When you condemn the police, when you make it harder to do their job, you shouldn’t be surprised that criminals take advantage of the opportunities that follow.”
Mr. Cotton ridiculed reform advocates for pointing out that the United States locks up more prisoners than any other country. “Some on the left like to complain about mass incarceration — as if there are too many people locked up in our prisons, when more than half of violent crimes don’t even result in an arrest,” he said.
(One statistic he didn’t mention: About half of those imprisoned in the United States are there for nonviolent offenses.)
Some areas of possible consensus emerged, including on “extreme risk” or “red flag” laws, a topic brought up by Senator Dianne Feinstein, a moderate Democrat from California. These kinds of laws, which are on the books in over a dozen states, allow family members and law-enforcement officers to request that a judge restrict a seemingly dangerous person’s access to guns.
But when it comes to the House’s background-check bills, there’s little chance of passage in the Senate. Senator Joe Manchin, a centrist Democrat from West Virginia who has long sought to find consensus on gun control, has said he opposes it because it would require background checks even in sales between private citizens. He and Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, have written a separate bill — but even that one stands little chance of passage, absent some revision of the filibuster.
In remarks from the White House today, President Biden pushed for more than an expansion to background checks. He said he wanted to reinstate a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, like the one he helped to pass as a senator in the 1990s. “This is not and should not be a partisan issue — it is an American issue,” Mr. Biden said. “We have to act.”
New York Times Podcasts
Why Bernie Sanders is newly optimistic
My experience of interviewing Senator Bernie Sanders is that you’re usually talking to someone who recognizes that he’s rowing against the tides of American politics. You’re typically talking about what he believes the president should be doing, but isn’t, or what the Democratic Party should be supporting, but isn’t.
But the American Rescue Plan was different. It’s President Biden’s bill, of course, but it’s the kind of thing that Mr. Sanders has been fighting to pass for years. So, too, with the full-employment-through-investment package coming next. And so I wanted to hear what Mr. Sanders makes of this moment, where it seems that he lost the election, but won many of the arguments.
So I asked him on my podcast, and what I got was a much more optimistic Mr. Sanders than I’ve ever spoken to before. “Congress does not pass perfect bills,” he told me. “But for working-class people, this is the most significant piece of legislation passed since the 1960s.”
We also talked about the filibuster, where he’s moved from supporting it even during the 2020 campaign, to opposing it now; and about the fights over speech and culture, where he clearly has some concerns with where liberals are moving, and how hard that makes it to talk to voters who might otherwise agree with them on economics.
“These cultural issues,” he said, “I don’t know how you bridge the gap.” But “somehow or another, the intellectual elite does have, in some cases, a contempt for the people who live in rural America,” he said, and he argued that the first step to winning those voters back is proving that you respect them.
It’s an interesting, reflective conversation with a politician who finally finds himself rowing with the tide, and is clearly eager to see how far he can go. I hope you’ll listen by following “The Ezra Klein Show” wherever you get your podcasts, or reading the transcript here.